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Returning God's Gifts

Date:1/11/09

Passage: 1 Peter 4:7-11

Speaker: Dan Doriani

Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani

RETURNING GOD’S GIFTS

1 Peter 4:7-11

One summer, I spoke at a family camp in Pennsylvania's Nittany Mountains. Our eldest was seven and we gave her the run of the camp, including the rolling woods on the edge of the camp. She explored the fallen logs and tiny streams and captured various small creatures, above all red-spotted newts, for hours. On the fourth day, she burst into our room with a box of plants, bugs and these salamanders and declared, "I was made for this."

The sense of "being made" for something is the visceral, human component of the Christian concept of gifts. The theological conviction behind it is that from the beginning God created mankind for diversity within unity. Aristotle said a city finds life in its diversity. Paul says the church, like the human body is a unity of diverse members (1 Corinthians 12:12-30). We don't all sing the same note. We are made for harmony, not unison singing.1 When God created this world, he cast his creativity upon the waters of humanity and he expects that creativity to return (cf. Ecclesiastes 11:1). We each create, we each love some part of his creation, we each understand God's grace in Christ, and so contribute to his divine design in our way. The way we contribute will overlap with the work of many others, yet in some way it is distinct.

All of us have tastes in music, food, and recreation. Each hears something distinct in a piece of music, sees something distinct in a landscape. One will regard a desert landscape as dead and frightening, another is transfixed by its austere beauty. Many of us would love to see an unbroken succession of sunny days, but some prefer, at least occasionally, to see mist and rain in the valley.

Jesus tells his people: "To him who overcomes, I will give a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it." This unique name, sight and appetite means each of us has a unique character and a distinct contribution to make to God's plan of restoration. That is the starting point for the biblical teaching about gifts.

Biblical survey of spiritual gifts. Principles, lists and terms

God bestows a nature and graces that equip each one to become a herald of his kingdom. He has distributed gifts to every believer, male and female alike. Peter lists the gifts of the Spirit in 4:10-11. Paul's are in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4. The lists vary in size and content. They mention about twenty gifts. Several cite teaching, prophesying, serving, encouraging, leading, giving, healing. But no two lists are identical. None is exhaustive. None tries to enumerate and categorize all classes of God-given talent. The Bible seems to view music and artistic abilities as well as hospitality as gifts (1 Corinthians 14:26, 1 Peter 4:9, Exodus 31:2).2 But they never appear in the lists. The lesson: we miss the point if we labor to specify the precise number and categories of gifts. The main point is simple: we have gifts and must find and use them.

2 The lists seem to be partial: 1) Each list is distinct; even short lists have terms missing from long ones. 2) Some terms are listed as gifts in one place and a result of a gift in others: "Encouraging" is a gift in Rom 12:8, but a result of prophecy in 1 Cor 14:3. Knowledge is independent in 1 Corinthians 12:8 and a result of prophesy in 14:6. 3) Music appears with the gifts of teaching, tongues and interpretation in 1 Cor 14:26. God gave Bezalel and Oholiab artistic skill to construct the tabernacle (Exod 31:2, 35:30, 36:1-2). Hospitality may also be a gift, since it is mentioned near gift lists (Rom 12:13, 1 Pet 4:9) and it aids church life (Rom 16:23, 1 Tim 5:10, 3 John 8).

Paul calls our spiritual abilities "gifts" (Ephesians 4:7-8), "ministries" and "workings" (1 Corinthians 12:5-6), "manifestations of the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:7), "spiritual things" (1 Corinthians 12:1, 14:1), and "measure of faith" (Romans 12:4). It appears in many translations, but the phrase, "spiritual gifts," never occurs in the original. Curiously, the phrase we use most – spiritual gifts – never appears in the original Greek, although it is used in many translations of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14:1. Paul's favorite term is a cousin of "grace" (charis) and means "gracious gifts" – charismata (Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians 12:9, 29-31). The ordinary words are dorea and doma (Ephesians 4:7-8). The word is usually plural, though Paul does exhort Timothy to stir up the gift given to him with prophecy (1 Timothy 4:14, 2 Timothy 1:6, cf. 1 Peter 4:10).

He calls our gifts graces because they are more than abilities. They are a means of God's grace for the people around us. They empower our work for Him. At best, they lead us to focus on God's work, his Spirit, and his graces for his people (1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 14:12).

All gifts are important. Just as the human body needs every part, so the body of Christ needs every part. We pay more attention to the head than to the lungs, but we need both. We pay more attention to hands than feet, but we need both. Paul does talk about "higher gifts" But a gift is "higher" only if it allows more strategic service (1 Corinthians 12:31, 14:1-5).

Gifts of speaking and serving

Peter divides gifts into two categories, speaking and serving. "If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words [or oracles] of God." If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides." Peter says we administer God's grace two ways – through words and deeds (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Everyone uses their gifts to serve others, not just elite believers or office-holders. Indeed, for most gifts, there is no office. Yet the two categories - gifts of speaking and serving – do correspond to two church offices. Elders lead the ministry of words and deacons lead the ministry of deeds.

See the chart on the bulletin. If you want to know your gifts and God's call, start with this: Am I more a speaker of words or a doer of deeds? We are all speakers and doers, but most of us are more one than the other.

Peter also says gifts ultimately belong to God, not to us. We are stewards or managers of God's variegated grace (1 Peter 4:10). So our gifts aren't our possession or trophy. There is no room for pride. It is wrong to ask how we can use our gifts for our personal benefit or advantage.

The nature and use of gifts

A gift begins with some capacity that is at the core of our being. It starts with something we can do – better than most people. God distributed gifts and designed a role for each of his children. So the particular calling is unique for each person. Sometimes parents and teachers discover it first: A musical child starts to play the piano and can't stop until she moves on to the violin, guitar or trumpet.

Sometimes we discover it later, among our peers. I often found myself explaining things to my friends when I was in high school, but one day, a campus ministry leader asked me to address our college group. When I stood up to speak, something unexpected happened. I felt energetic yet calm, intense but relaxed. When I finished, a good friend came over and said, "I didn’t know you could do that." I replied, "I didn't either" – but I've been doing it ever since.

That is a fairly common way to discover gifts. An observant person suspects that they see something in you. They invite you to do something. You think "Yes! I'm interested!" You try it and there is a positive result. Soon you are invited to do it again – even on a regular basis.

See the triangle visual in the bulletin. There is some core interest, desire and ability that leads to a desire to do something useful for others. Then fruit, then invited to do it again, possibly in a formal way – as part of a job or a recognized position as a volunteer. Ideally, the more you do it, the more skill you gain, the more you want to do it. Slowly you learn more precisely what your gifts are.

A few people wonder if they are called to Christian ministry at the conclusion of seminary training. The church ought to give men and women opportunities to explore that possibility. But every believer needs to explore his or her passions, abilities, and dreams. But we must expect an exploration of gifts to lead far beyond our dreams of self-development and self-realization.3

First, your dream will entail a passion to right some wrong, to relieve some hurt or take away a deficit. That hurt may be something you have seen first-hand. Maybe you or a friend experienced it. And you need to give your dream legs: Create a plan, dive into this messy reality, get trained.

Second, ask, "What people will I serve?" Godly dreams aren't selfish. They serve some people in some place. They may involve a race, a region, a group of women, men or children who have suffered something, who experience a deficit you can remedy

Third, ask, "Where shall I serve?" Even if your work reaches across the globe, even if you travel constantly, there is a home office, a bed where you sleep at night, and a group of people who count on you. Do you know who they are?

Fourth, what burden will you bear? Again, the call is not to self-fulfillment – although that may come. You are called to relieve suffering, to do justice, to lead a stagnant group forward, to tackle a project when few are equipped for it. To meet a clear need – whether it be physical, financial, psychological or even recreational. It could be legal, educational, spiritual or relational. But there is a need for you.

In all this, there will be a core. Take Jesus as an example. Although he is creator and Lord of all, so that all things are in his sphere of interest, he still came in one place, Israel, at one time. He served one people. Like all of us, he did many things – he healed, taught, made disciples. But above all he lived in perfect righteousness, died in perfect innocence, and rose perfectly restored. This he did so that he might defeat death, suffer the punishment our sins deserve, and give us the righteousness we need. This is all yours – ours - if we trust him.

None of us has gifts and a calling as splendid as that of Jesus. Indeed, very few of us will be glorious leaders. Each one of us is important, but almost all of us labor in a support role. Perhaps you remember this from the 2008 Olympics.

Jason Lezak was a member of the U.S. men's swim team, alongside Michael Phelps who was the star . When Lezak arrived in Beijing, he already owned four medals from relays in prior Olympics. But he had never won an individual medal and some called him the man who couldn't win the big race.

On August 11, Lezak was the anchor of the 400-meter freestyle relay. The U.S. free-style teams had won silver in the last two games. In this race, the French team gave a six second lead to Alain Bernard, the world's best free style swimmer, for the fourth and final leg.

If Lezak failed to catch Bernard, his team would fail. Since Michael Phelps was their leadoff, his pursuit of eight gold medals would fail, too. When Lezak entered the pool he didn't think he could catch Bernard. Indeed, Bernard's half-body lead grew into a full-body lead. But Lezak kept working. "You're at the Olympics," he told himself. "You can't give up." It is fascinating that Olympic athletes, even in the midst of the races of their lives, think about futility and giving up. All of us think of quitting at times. Yet the internal compulsion given by our gift and the external disciplines of call and duty keep us going.

Everyone was thinking silver medal. But Lezak started gaining with thirty meters to go. Swimming next to him, Lezak could see Bernard losing steam, pressing to honor his pre-race boast that he would smash the Americans. He also made the tactical error of swimming on the left side of his lane, creating a draft that pulled the American along.

With ten meters to go, Lezak was almost even. His wife could barely watch. His sister kept screaming, "Jason's catching up!" With five meters left, the race was a dead heat as Lezak swam toward the hysterical Phelps.

Lezak and Bernard touched the wall at virtually the same instant; then the scoreboard flashed the report: the guy who couldn't win the big race had just won the gold with the fastest split of all time. The Americans had taken four seconds off the world record and won on the strength of a relay specialist.

We remember Phelps, every muscle straining, ready to explode as he watched. It was his second gold on his historic quest to win eight. Six days later, after winning a medal of his own, Lezak closed Phelps' eighth and final gold, sealing another world record in the medley relay. So the greatest swimmer in the world needed all his teammates, including the relay specialist.

This world has more relay specialists than independent superstars. That applies in every human society, including the church. Certainly, no one starts as a superstar. We need to add that all our work is provisional. We may have some core ability or interest that remains through life, but we need to be open to do what God pleases.

We must expect things to change. We change. A man may be gifted at sales. But after a while, he must ask, "What do I most want to sell? What can do the most good? Is something broken that I – broken as I am – might be able to fix?”

When a task is done, when you are convinced you have added all you can to some project, are you able to move on if God calls? Sometimes a call is just right for a time and then the time passes. We have new experiences and the world around us has new needs so that it is time to move on. We need to trust the Lord to see and act on that in the fullness of time.

Key concepts

A gift is a capacity and desire for ministry, given by God for regular, fruitful use for the church. "Capacity" means gifted people actually advance God's kingdom. Gifted leaders mobilize people for causes. Gifted teachers are clear and compelling so people learn. Encouragers listen, speak, and act to lift spirits (1 Corinthians 14:3-5; Romans 12:8).

"Desire" means we usually take pleasure in our gifts. Yes, prophets may need to deliver bitter words of woe. But there is usually joy in prophecy. Leaders govern diligently, says Paul. Those who show mercy "do it cheerfully." Givers are generous. In Romans 12:8, Paul says those who have the gift "give generously."

The phrase "let them give generously" literally reads "let them give with simplicity." That is, if someone has the gift of giving, they need no return, they simply give. Giving itself is the reward. Givers say, "Please take this money" or "Please borrow our car. You will minister to us if you do."

Leaders find satisfaction in helping others - or their group - accomplish their goals. The merciful are glad to help others. The gifted feel alive when they exercise their talents, even if it brings hardships, as apostleship did for Paul. Yet, if you have a skill and dislike it, it's probably not a gift in the fullest sense.

"Fruit" means the exercise of a skill strengthens people, the church (1 Corinthians 14:3). The gifts bring God's people to maturity. They edify the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13). Conversely, someone may be a talented musician or speaker, but fail to bless the church if he seeks to entertain rather than inspire worship. True gifts are God-centered.

Categories of gifts

If you want to find your gift, try to assess yourself. First, we saw that Peter says there are two types of gift. Speakers who speak "the very words of God" and servants who work "in the strength God provides." Are you more a speaker or a doer? Second, are you more drawn to public or to private service? A private speaker will be an encourager. A public speaker is a teacher. A private doer has the gift of service or administration. A public doer may be a leader.

One more big idea. Gifts are often heightened forms of regular duties

A long look at the gift lists shows that God expects all believers to participate, at least occasionally, in most gifts. I'll put a chart on our web site this week. But it's pretty obvious if you give it a little thought.

Wisdom is a gift, but the Bible says all should pursue wisdom – listen to the wise, to our parents and ask God for it.

Discernment is a gift, but Paul says everyone should "test all things and hold fast to what is good" (1 Thessalonians 2:1).

Evangelism is a gift but all should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in us (1 Peter 3:14).

Faith is a gift, but all, Jesus said "should believe in the Father and believe also in me" (John 14:1).

Knowledge, generosity, mercy, service, teaching. These are all gifts. But clearly all of us should know the truth, be generous, show mercy and so on. Each one, in heightened form, is a gift, yet every believer should pursue each one.

A gift is a great capacity for something. To be gifted means that we love to do and to give to others through our skill. Through our gift, we right wrongs, heal hurts, and enrich life for all. (There are exceptions: miracles and speaking in tongues are all or nothing. But with most gifts, people can exercise it a little.)

Let's call this "The Principle of Participation." The Principle of Participation means we should all be willing to help out a bit, in a pinch, whether we feel comfortable and talented or not. So no one should use a theology of gifts to dodge glamourless tasks such as kitchen duty claiming, "Not my gift." Nor should we use gifts of theology to beg off an uncomfortable or challenging call to something like mercy ministries for refugees. Anyone can serve and everyone should serve. The Principle of Participation can also lead to uncertainty. We may not recognize at once who has a gift and who is simply helping. There may be a fuzzy boundary between "The Gifted" and "The Helpers." People may effectively participate in a ministry and like it, without having a gift. They may wrongly conclude something is their special calling when they are simply serving well.

The Principle of Participation frees everyone for ministry. Women, children and men should expect to share in all sorts of ministries. There are many ways to serve and many ways to lead. Many of us can do a bit of anything. Let me develop this idea by distinguishing function, role and office in ministry.

Function

We can briefly exercise almost any spiritual function. Everyone is capable of serving; everyone occasionally functions there. A crusty grump may see a sad person and say an encouraging word. A traveler can share her faith on an airplane even if she is no evangelist. A teenager can give a friend solid counsel, whether she is gifted with wisdom or not.

Role

When someone has the skill and desire for a task, when their labors meet needs and wise people ask them to serve again, we have something more. Regular, fruitful service is a role. When work is customary, joyful, and effective, it may be an ongoing role in the kingdom.

People can also fill a role for a while even if it's not their first gift. To put it personally, my primary gift is teaching. But for over fifteen years or so, I keep hearing and heeding a call to leadership. My work as leader is, true to my nature, "teacherly" in texture. I research a matter, synthesize ideas, and, at best, present them sensibly and persuasively. Thus my angle on leadership is, we may say, cognitive rather than administrative. In fact, I have little skill and scant interest in administration. Nonetheless, administrative tasks impose themselves on me at times and if I care about the truth and the causes I promote, I must not shirk administrative work. I may delegate it, but I cannot ignore it. As needs arise, people with modest abilities may find vital but awkward roles thrust upon them. We cannot abandon them because they fail to match our sense of calling.

If someone's role perfectly suits their gift, they may stay there. With most gifts, there is nothing loftier than a long-standing role. There is no office, no ordination or ceremony to set them apart. There is no office of Giver or Encourager (Romans 12:8, 1 Corinthians 12:28). Anyone can lead in those areas.

Office

A kingdom role becomes an office when the church recognizes, calls and consecrates someone for a formal leadership position. Officers meet known criteria described in Scripture. Today, offices include pastor, elder, deacon. In the past, there were prophets, priests, kings, and apostles.

An office is a formal position bestowed after calling, testing and consecration. To lead well, officers must function in many areas. Tough guys must encourage; shy men must learn to lead a bit. The technical name for your pastors is "teaching elder", but we do many things: administration, evangelism, and shepherding. Even with pastors, the call keeps shifting and gifts manifest themselves in new ways.

We find ourselves moving around when there is a need, a wound, an injustice, a cause that needs workers. Men and women have primary gifts that can be adapted to solve the problem. Meanwhile, we must keep honing our gifts. We should seek training and strive for the most challenging skills we can master. That is how we grow as humans and as God's agents or ambassadors.

When we bring the core of ourselves to our work, good things can happen. Christopher O'Riley is a classical pianist and public radio talk show host who rewrites Radiohead songs for classical piano. Crayon Physics Deluxe by Petri Purho combines a children's book and child-like graphics with the principles of gravity and Rube Goldberg.

When we serve others – creatively and on the basis of our identity – we get close to the character and plan of God. For he created many things and when his world was shattered, he came, in space and time, among a particular people, to solve the problem. After he returned to heaven, he did not continue the work with an army of clones. He made creation and humanity to be immensely diverse. Each species of star, each species of plant and animal, every human has a distinct way to praise and to serve the creator.

All of the redeemed have a secret name given by Jesus. Each knows and is known, each has his or her relationship with God, sees his goodness in a slightly different way by means of our gifts, our needs, our history. Each finds meaning in giving away all he or she received from the Lord. Then we can say, "I was made for this."

1 Lewis, Pain, pages 155-6
3 Allender, To be Told…,page 113-117